ALL ABOUT ART NOUVEAU
Towards the end of the 19th century, designers all over Europe were looking for a new style to replace the stuffy formality of the art world and the mediocrity of mass-produced commercial pieces.
Art nouveau was the prevailing European design style of the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. The term, meaning 'new art', is French, and was originally applied to groups of artists and designers in France and Belgium. Later, it became something of a catch-all category, embracing Arts and Crafts and Aestheticism in Britain, new crafts movements in Holland and Scandinavia, Jugendstil in Germany, and the Vienna Secession in Austria, among others.
All these styles shared some basic similarities, largely because they were inspired by similar concerns. All of them were a self-conscious search for new forms of decoration and of
expression, and all were essentially reactions against the increasing industrialization and urbanization of Europe, the rise of the machine and the idea of scientific progress.
The new stylists were also in revolt against the rather studied, academic tradition that still prevailed, despite the influence of the Impressionists and other innovators, in the fine arts.
SKILL AND BEAUTY
In some cases, as with the Arts and Crafts movement, this reaction was expressed in the revival of various pre-industrial craft skills. At other times, as with Aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, the new spirit was expressed as the worship of a rather vague ideal of beauty. Most art nouveau designers, though, fell between the two extremes, attempting to combine individual workmanship with strong decorative values.
Among the important influences on art nouveau were the Arts and Crafts designs of William Morris's company, Japanese art and the Anglo-Japanese style developed by designers such as Charles Godwin. Pieces by Godwin and Arts and Crafts designers like Arthur Mackmurdo caused quite a sensation when they were exhibited in continental Europe in the 1880s.
From Arts and Crafts, art nouveau designers took a decorative style based on motifs taken straight from nature, while the influence of Japan was seen in the use of line and colour in painting and drawing, and in asymmetry and a certain lightness of touch in the design of solid objects such as furniture.
The chief characteristics of the style that evolved out of these influences were the use of long, undulating, curved lines, neglected craft materials such as stained glass and pewter, muted, naturalistic colours and pastels, and a library of decorative motifs that were
drawn from observations of the natural world. The attractive lines and motifs of the art nouveau style could be seen in a wide range of products, including furniture, fabrics and glassware.
As the term became fashionable, just about anything made around the turn of the century that looked a bit
different was called art nouveau, even if it had little to do with anything else that was around. Even the angular furniture and buildings of the Scot, Charles
Rennie Mackintosh, whose world foreshadows modernism and art deco, were included.
Nouveau style had an effect on everything from graphic design to architecture throughout Europe, though less so in Britain. Ironically, though British work had inspired art nouveau style, it was disdained as decadent by most British designers.
The first true art nouveau building was the Maison Tassel in Brussels. The interior, exterior and the furnishings of the house were designed as a whole by Victor Horta in 1893. At that time, Brussels was the centre of art nouveau. However, it was a Spaniard, Antoni Gaudi, who took art nouveau architecture to its purest form. His unfinished Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, begun in 1903, has so much naturalistic detail it seems to be alive.
In 1900, the centre of gravity of art nouveau moved to France. The Paris Exhibition brought together the work of many of the best designers, while one of the movement's most enduring creations is the sinuous cast-iron work that adorns the station entrances on the Paris Metro. Rene' Lalique, among others, also worked out of Paris, producing wonderful art nouveau jewellery using semi-precious stones.
Many French designers worked in and around Nancy, where Daum and Galle' created lovely hand-finished glass vases decorated with flowers and landscapes, many drawn from life. Galle' also made furniture, as did Louis Majorelle.
The work of both men featured curved, organic shapes decorated with marquetry plants and insects. The motto above the door to Galle's studio read 'Our roots are in the depths of the woods - on the banks of the streams, in mosses'.
Art nouveau was largely confined to Europe, with the shining exception of the American glassmaker, Louis Comfort Tiffany. His lamps, with moulded bronze bases in the shape of plant stems and leaded glass shades that were a cascade of floral colour, are one of the purest products of art nouveau design.
By no means everyone liked art nouveau. Many found it just too rich, too precious and too arty. Its great mainstream influence was on the graphic arts, including packaging, and, ironically, on mass-produced and machine-made work, where borrowed motifs enlivened and decorated pieces that had nothing to do with the spirit which first energized the movement.
Art nouveau style did not survive World War 1. Pieces were generally under-rated until a revival of interest in the 1950s. Now, work by famous designers fetches large sums in the auction houses.